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Pearl Harbor in Baby Names

March 15, 2019 laurawattenberg 2 Comments

Pearl Harbor in Baby Names

March 15, 2019 LauraWattenberg 2 Comments
Portrait of Captain Colin Kelly
Captain Colin Kelly. Image: National Museum of the US Air Force

On December 7, 1941, the world shifted: the Japanese bombing of a U.S. domestic naval base brought America into World War II. You can see the country’s move to wartime thinking play out in pre vs. post-Pearl Harbor baby names. What’s more, you can see direct echoes of the attack itself where it took place, in Hawaii.

At first glance, the naming shift to wartime can be summarized by a single man. General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, dominated 1942’s hottest rising boys’ names. The top four risers were McArthur, MacArthur, Douglas and Mac, and five more MacArthur variants ranked in the top 20. Even names like Duglas and McAuthor suddenly appeared in the national name statistics.

Here’s the total effect, headlined by a huge jump in the already popular name Douglas.

Boys with Names Related to Douglas MacArthur, USA 1939-1943

After MacArthur, the most name-honored solider of 1942 was Captain Colin Kelly Jr., a pilot shot down in a post-Pearl Harbor bombing run who became one of the war’s first American heroes. Captain Kelly was even name-checked alongside the likes of Lincoln and Washington in the 1942 patriotic song “There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere.” The name Colin had previously been uncommon in the U.S., but since that first wartime spark it has never gone away.

On the girls’ side, most of the tributes were more general. The name Victory reemerged in significant numbers for the first time since the WWI armistice, and the number of Victorias rose by almost 70%. But one more specific name stands out, the most direct homage to Pearl Harbor: Pearl. As you can see, the number of American girls named Pearl rose by almost a third, countering a trend which had seen the old-time favorite lose 94% of its popularity since the turn of the century.

Girls Named Pearl in the USA 1939-1943

But now take a look at another chart of the same name. This chart shows the popularity of Pearl in Hawaii, where the Pearl Harbor base was located.

Girls name Pearl in Hawaii 1939-1943

That near tripling is a good reminder that even the most momentous global events hit us on another level when they hit close to home. The fact of an attack on U.S. soil shocked the whole nation in 1941. The declaration of war affected every American, especially soldiers and their families. But for Hawaiians, the attack and ongoing threat were physical, visceral things.

It might seem surprising that parents would name a child after such a horror, yet we see this pattern a lot. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, for instance, the sharpest rise in the baby name Katrina was seen directly in the storm’s path. To people on the spot, these events are both global and personal, a part of their own experience. And baby names that honor them honor both sides of the experience, as memory and memorial.


Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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  • Quiara
    Quiara March 15, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    A quick look would suggest that a lot of Japanese boys’ names (Kenji, Takeshi, Akira) all suddenly drop off the SSA data around 1941, and then only come back a few decades later, if at all. Of course, this isn’t very comprehensive – but there is a notable lack of any Japanese names between 1945 and about 1960. I wouldn’t be surprised if anti-Japanese sentiment following Pearl Harbor was the root of it.

    • Kayeff
      Kayeff March 16, 2019 at 2:09 pm

      I wonder if Japanese-American families moved to using Japanese names as middle names more (instead of in the first name slot, which is documented,) or if they just dropped them completely.

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